When your company tells you to clean out your locker or your desk, you rarely walk penniless out the door. Usually, there's a goodbye check. A quick calculation tells you how many months of living expenses the check will cover.
But if part of that check represents pension savings, you'll take a big loss if you spend it all. Those savings represent years of patient tax deferral that, once gone, can never be recovered. If you chuck the money into your bank account, you will:
Owe income taxes on the full sum.
Owe a 10 percent tax penalty, if you're under age 59 1/2.
Lose the opportunity for that money to continue to grow tax-deferred.
A retirement-savings check that started out at, say, $5,000 might be down to $3,000 or less by the time the state and federal tax offices get their hands on it. Whereas if you kept it invested at 8 percent for 20 years, you'd have $17,000 after taxes in the 28 percent bracket, without doing a lick of work.
When you lose your job, you should immediately draw up a bare-bones budget -- mortgage, rent, utilities, insurance, car loan, food, gasoline, job-hunting costs. Tell other creditors you'll send them good-faith checks of $10 a month until you are employed again. This should buy you at least six months.
Cover your bare-bones budget with any income you have (like unemployment pay), plus all the savings you can turn into cash. This includes bank accounts, mutual funds and that portion of your company's goodbye check that doesn't represent retirement money, such as severance and vacation pay.
But for the time being, don't throw your retirement money into the breach. You may have received a lump-sum distribution from a pension plan, your own tax-deductible 401(k) contributions, matching contributions from your employer, and tax-deferred earnings on the whole sum. None of this money has ever been taxed, so keep it that way by rolling the whole wad into an individual retirement account. You have 60 days to make the transfer; if you wait any longer, full taxes and penalties are due. The only money that can't be rolled over are sums you deposited into the plan from your after-tax earnings. So pull out this cash and add it to your ready savings. It won't cost you extra income taxes because the tax has already been paid.
Invest your rollover IRA in a money-market mutual fund or a bank money-market deposit account and leave it alone.
What if you use up your savings and are still unemployed? At that point, start drawing on your rollover IRA. You'll owe taxes and probably penalties on the money you take out. But the moment you get a job, you can stop the withdrawals and preserve what's left of your retirement account.
In addition, a good retirement-savings plan is heavily invested in stocks or stock-owning mutual funds, for long-term growth. Right now, you have losses and therefore may be reluctant to sell. That's a mistake. You might need some of this money to live on and cannot afford the risk that the stock market will drop further.
So sell your stocks, and your bond funds, too. Convert everything into cash. Your losses exist, like it or not. Switching into cash will not change your net worth -- it just makes your position more secure. You can redeploy your remaining savings into stocks and bonds when your income is secure again.